Rays bring Sox and fans down to earth
Where did the mojo go? Instead of waxing poetic about our teams, suddenly our teams are getting waxed.
We were kings of the world, universally hated by sports fans across the land. Life was a nonstop sequence of banner hoistings and ring celebrations. We grew arrogant, cocky, entitled.
Now the Patriots are an ordinary team with a no-name quarterback, getting pummeled, 30-10, much to the titillation of a national television audience hungry for New England blood.
And the Red Sox, winners of two of the last four World Series and favorites to repeat in the fall of 2008, find themselves trailing the once-laughable Tampa Bay Rays, two games to one, in the American League Championship Series. The Rays, deemed not ready for prime time playoffs by David Ortiz just a couple of days ago, routed the indomitable Jon Lester, 9-1, at Fenway Park yesterday. Who's the scaredy cat now?
I hereby suggest the Celtics place Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce in a hermetically sealed room until the start of the 2009 NBA playoffs. We can only take so much. Tom Brady is gone for the year, and the vaunted Sox might actually lose to the Rays. It would be simply too much to take if one of the Celtic kingpins goes down before the Green have a chance to repeat.
This is not to overreact to the Red Sox' plight. The Sox last year trailed the Indians, 3-1, in the ALCS, then roared back to win the next three and sweep the Rockies in the World Series.
But yesterday's lopsided loss to the Rays stunned a Nation still reeling from the Patriots' Sunday night debacle in San Diego. Suddenly Big Papi is Big Popup. Boy Wonder Jacoby Ellsbury is 0 for his last 20 and has fans begging for Coco Crisp. Josh Beckett, Mr. October of this century, is serving more meatballs than Bertucci's. Jason Varitek looks as though he might calcify in mid-swing. Terry Francona has forfeited his hardball Mensa membership and is hearing words he never heard in the Bible.
Two days ago, the Sox looked like a lock for the World Series (some nitwit actually wrote that). They blanked the pie-eyed Rays in Game 1 and had Messrs. Beckett and Lester coming back on full rest for Games 2 and 3. Ortiz spoke openly about the Rays having a "different look" on their faces in the playoffs.
Tampa recovered nicely in the 11-inning, 5 1/2-hour marathon Saturday night/Sunday morning, bleeding a run off 42-year-old Mike Timlin at 1:35 a.m.
Back home in Boston, the Sox awoke to a new tone Sunday. Francona was accused of taking stupid pills. Fans, talk jocks, and cynical scribes wondered about lineup possibilities and dubious bullpen deployment. Every Tito news conference became another chapter in "Defending Your Life."
But things didn't really sour until the third inning last night when B.J. Upton hit a ball onto Lansdowne Street, shattering Lester's veneer of invincibility. Everybody's favorite southpaw was 11-1 at Fenway this year and had not been scored upon in 14 postseason innings. He extended the streak to 15 before giving up a run in the second.
Upton's blow was one of two homers in the third, and the Rays weren't done hitting tape-measure shots. Boston fans hadn't seen this many long bombs since Sunday night every time Philip Rivers looked in the direction of Deltha O'Neal. Tampa tattooed the Sox for four homers in Game 3, giving Joe Maddon's Way Back Warriors seven home runs and 18 runs in two games. Ouch.
Tampa led, 5-0 after three and 8-1 after eight. The Rays are taking on the look of the 1969 Mets. Rhode Island icon Rocco Baldelli hit a three-run homer off Paul Byrd in the eighth. Carlos Peña, the pride of Haverhill and Northeastern, added a solo blast in the ninth.
The Rays completely took the crowd out of the game. The Fenway unfaithful booed captain Varitek when he popped up to end the fourth, but for most of the night the ancient yard sounded like the quiet car on the Acela. In the ninth, Fenway looked like Gillette Stadium three weeks ago when the Dolphins went ahead, 38-13. Talk about your alternative universes.
Tonight the Sox turn their desperate eyes to veteran Tim Wakefield.
Ortiz is 0 for 10 in the series and has not hit a homer in his last 14 postseason games. He has gotten away from using the whole field and appears to be trying to pull everything.
"When he does get hot, it will certainly be welcome," said Francona. "We're not going to live and die on one guy. We'll win as a ball club and on certain nights, when it's tough, we'll lose as a ball club."
This was one of those nights. It felt like the bad old days.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.